Darned right this was personal.
For a year, Alabama has been reminded of how Clemson snatched a national title from its hands at the last second, establishing the Tigers as a legitimate threat to the Crimson Tide’s dynasty. For a month, Alabama has had its worthiness questioned, a level of disrespect that once would have been unthinkable.
The Crimson Tide quietly seethed, taking names and numbers and filing them away. And on Monday night, Nick Saban and his ferocious defense unleashed the full force of that pent-up rage, making Clemson look like pretenders in the 24-6 win.
The Alabama defense harassed Kelly Bryant from the opening play — don’t be surprised if he’s still flinching in June — and essentially ended the game with five minutes left in the third quarter, picking him off on back-to-back plays and turning the miscues into 14 points.
Adding insult to injury, Tide nose guard Da’Ron Payne, who conservatively is listed at 308, scored the first of those touchdowns seven plays after picking off Bryant. Linebacker Mack Wilson returned the other interception 18 yards for the score.
“We’ve heard it for a year now,” running back Damien Harris said. “It showed in the way we played tonight how personally we took it. We wanted to take our respect back.”
Now Alabama, the team some suggested was in the playoff more on reputation than résumé, will play Georgia for the national title next week in Atlanta.
The dynasty is alive and well.
In the four years of the College Football Playoff, the Crimson Tide have made the title game all but once. For the sixth time in Saban’s 11 years, Alabama is playing for the national championship.
“This game was about our identity as a team,” Saban said, a surprising concession for a coach not prone to public self-reflection. “I don’t think anyone can question the relentless competitiveness we played with, the warrior-like mentality.
“It was a little bit personal for us after what happened to us in this game last year.”
The narrative in the lead-up to the Sugar Bowl, the third consecutive year Clemson and Alabama had met in the playoff, was that this could be a passing of the torch. After stunning the Tide in the last second of last year’s title game for their first national championship since 1981, the Tigers showed this season that they had, indeed, become every bit Alabama’s equal.
Despite losing Deshaun Watson and five other NFL draft picks, Clemson not only returned to the playoff, but did it as the No. 1 team. This was a program with a solid foundation, built to contend for the national title year in and year out.
Alabama, meanwhile, was showing signs of the decline that eventually fells all dynasties.
It wasn’t simply the loss in Iron Bowl, which kept the Tide out of the SEC title game for the first time since 2013. Alabama also struggled to beat Mississippi State and Texas A&M, and didn’t have a statement victory after Florida State folded like an origami crane.
Sure, there were injuries, the defense particularly decimated. But the Saban teams of old had faced adversity, too, yet managed to keep on rolling.
That the argument could even be made that Ohio State was more deserving of the fourth playoff spot would have been considered heresy in years past. Not this year. The Tide might have been favored in Las Vegas, but they were most definitely not the favorite.
All week, Alabama players were asked about being underdogs and whether Clemson could make a case for being the best program in the nation.
Oh, did we all get played.
“We felt disrespected,” running back Bo Scarbrough said. “Everyone doubted us, everyone counted us out. But it motivated us to get better and show the world what we’re capable of.”
This wasn’t simply a team motivated by slights and an untimely loss. This was vintage Alabama, bludgeoning Clemson in a manner that Texas, LSU and Notre Dame surely recognized. The Tide went after Bryant and Clemson from the opening kickoff, treating every inch of the field like it was their personal property.
When Raekwon Davis sacked Bryant to end the first quarter, it gave Clemson negative-7 yards of total offense. Yes, you read that correctly. Negative-7 yards. Not until early in the second quarter did the Tigers get a first down.
Remember Hunter Renfrow, the Alabama killer from the first two meetings? The first time Bryant threw to him, two Alabama defenders were there to knock the ball away. He finished with five catches for 31 yards.
The message was clear: college football remains Alabama’s game, and respect must be paid.
“You saw, just how we played overall, the things that motivated us, and that’s just playing good, Alabama defense,” said linebacker Rashaan Evans, who had one of Alabama’s five sacks.
College football can have only one king, and Alabama isn’t about to concede its crown.
By Nancy Armour
This article was republished with permission from the original author and 2015 Ronald Reagan Media Award recipient, Nancy Armour, and the original publisher, USA Today. Follow columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour.